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Iridium by Lynn A. MacIntyre. Part of the The Periodic Table Printmaking Project (2007), Jennifer Schmitt.

When an artist crosses into science land to follow a physicist who crossed into geology land, the resulting picture tells a real story. A large dinosaur rears up on its hind legs, neck twisted and mouth open in shock as it watches a flaming object blaze across the sky. A herd of small dinosaurs scurries by in the background, trying to duck the oncoming doom. To the left of the image a giant pillar forms the letter “I,” next to it a lower-case “r.” Iridium, element 77, dominates this picture.

The story begins with physicist Luis Alvarez and a 65-million-year-old mystery buried in a layer of clay. The clay, in a piece of old rock, dates from the great dinosaur extinction (many, many other species died, but, hey, people remember the dinosaurs). Alvarez wanted to know how long it took for the clay to be deposited, and one way to do that was to measure the amount of iridium in it. Since earthly iridium is generally found in the earth’s core, most of that on or near the earth’s surface originally came from space. And since scientists know the rate at which stuff from space rains down on earth, Alvarez could use iridium as a clock. But the steady tick-tock of a constant drifting down of iridium unexpectedly accelerated in the clay, meaning far more iridium than expected. That iridium spike exactly matched in time the great dinosaur extinction.

In 1980 Alvarez and his chemist compatriots published a paper arguing that an iridium-rich meteorite smashed into the earth 65 million years ago, causing mass extinctions, and leaving behind its signature in the form of an iridium layer. Artist Lynn A. MacIntyre turned this piece of science history into art. MacIntyre’s art can be found in CHF’s museum as part of Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry, where it sits among 117 other prints, each of which tells a story of a particular element. 

This Friday, Jennifer Schmitt, curator of the periodic table of prints, will be on hand at CHF to help people create their own science and art stories. We’d love to hear yours in the comments. But you may find that sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Posted In: Education | History

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